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Expansion, private equity and female investment the new frontiers in footy code war

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Rugby League Commissioner chair Peter V’landys could not have been more explicit.

Rugby league’s part-administrator, part-commander-in-chief was talking on Nine Radio in May about the AFL’s steps into Queensland.

Most dramatically, Brisbane hosted much of the AFL season last year as COVID-19 gripped Victoria.

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“Look the AFL have done a wonderful job,” he added.

“They’ve held our hands. Made us feel warm and fuzzy while they’ve invaded us.”

The comments came as a new book titled Code Wars lands on shelves.

Its author, Dr Hunter Fujak, has spent the past seven years studying the dynamics of football in this country.

Dr Hunter Fujak writes in his new book that AFL is winning the football code wars.(

ABC: Rudy De Santis

)

He’s in no doubt which code is currently on top.

“The AFL is winning the code wars,” he says, “followed by rugby league, soccer and rugby union bringing in the tail.”

Dr Fujak cites the fact that one in five Australians are interested in AFL and no other football code. He points out AFL brings in more revenue than anyone else each year. And he highlights clubs in the AFL are largely profitable.

But don’t tell those in charge of the other codes, who continue to battle like the score is nil-all.

A composite image of AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan and ARLC chairman Peter V'Landys.
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan and Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys are leaders of their sports.(

AAP: Scott Barbour, Bianca De Marchi

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Queensland the focus

While other codes have presence in the AFL states of Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, Queensland — as the fastest growing state — has become the front line in the footy code wars.

“We’ve seen the AFL make really strong gains in Queensland,” Dr Fujak says, “television audiences in Brisbane are very strong and rugby league audiences are declining.”

The NRL will announce plans for a new team in Brisbane in the coming months and not only is the senior men’s competition expanding.

The NRLW is set to grow to seven teams this season, with the Titans becoming the second team in South-East Queensland.

Brisbane players celebrate a goal on the AFL field
Courtney Hodder of the Lions celebrates a goal during the AFLW Grand Final in April.(

AAP: Matt Turner

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In response to V’Landys’ talk about invasion, chief executive of the Brisbane Lions AFLW team, Breaanna Brock, is steadfast.

“What can I say? AFL’s the Indigenous game of Australia right.

“We invented the game here. It’s native to Australia. It should be everywhere in Australia.”

The Lions are reigning AFLW champions, with a team made of mostly Queenslanders.

Two women celebrate on a football field, one wearing a uniform and the other a polo shirt
Breeanna Brock with Emma Zielke after the 2021 AFLW Grand Final.(

AFL Photos/Twitter

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“My previous role to this was working for AFL up in Queensland and my role was to grow the game for women and girls,” Brock says.

“When I started in 2013 we were starting at around 40 to 50,000 participants, well that’s up to 120,000 now.”

Eugenie Buckley from sports consultancy Suiko knows Queensland well. She has worked in cricket and rugby and been chair of Netball Queensland.

She was also CEO of A-League club Brisbane Roar during the club’s most successful period.

“It is a code war because there’s only so much talent in Australia,” she says.

Sports consultant Eugenie Buckley
Sports consultant Eugenie Buckley says women’s competitions are driving corporate investment.

She believes the talent pool of female athletes is currently being squeezed by the sporting bodies tapping into changing investment dynamics.

“The corporates are finding it harder and harder to justify investing into just single sex sports, investing in sports that just have male arms,” she says.

The W-League started in 2008 and netball is a major competitor with an established elite competition, but neither has secured the success of AFLW, which Buckley describes as “probably a game changer”.

But she’s concerned the growth of the AFLW — four more teams will join by 2023 — may do more harm the good.

“Hats off to them to having such an ambitious goal, but I have concerns whether they have the underlying pathways ready for that,” she says.

“When the AFLW started there were a few criticisms over the quality of the product and the number of injuries … so if you keep adding too quickly, it could come unstuck.”

Driving participation

Football is Australia’s most popular of the footy codes for both child and senior participation. 

Buckley believes the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand will give it a further boost.

“I think you’ll see an uplift not just in women’s participation but in men’s participation rate.

Dr Fujak’s research shows why junior participation is so important to those in charge of the codes.

Put simply, playing sport as a junior — for example the AFL’s Auskick program for primary school age children — leads to more consumption as an adult.

“If we use Auskick for the AFL as an example, a child who has not had exposure to Auskick as a child, on average watches 3.7 games of AFL in a season. A child who has played Auskick goes onto watch 8.5 games.”

Brock is committed to keeping girls playing Australian rules, and has sought to remove a gap that has traditionally existed in Brisbane girls’ competitions.

“It meant adding in younger and younger age groups.”

“So that then became an under-15s competition, and under-13s, an under-11s, and this year we’ve just introduced an under-9s competition.”

Programs like Auskick and clubs in developing markets of the Gold Coast and Western Sydney, receive subsidies from AFL headquarters.

Dr Fujak argues they could even be going further.

“The AFL could quite literally offer families a $200 cash incentive to have them play Auskick.

“Then that child would grow up to be an adult consumer who’s a much bigger fan of AFL, and the lifetime value of that fandom would probably pay off their $200 investment.”

The AFL is certainly best placed to spend. Right now no sporting body brings in as much money each year.

The underdogs

Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan understands the challenges facing his code.

“We need deep resources to compete with the NRL and the AFL and soccer, so it’s a bit of an arms race.”

McLennan signed a new broadcast agreement with Channel Nine and streamer Stan that provides exposure on free-to-air television and a deeper experience for fans via the streaming service.

And the Wallabies have just locked in a new sponsor in Cadbury.

A man in a suit smiles in front of Wallabies jerseys
Rugby Australia chair Hamish McLennan is looking to find ways to compete with the other codes financially.(

ABC News

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But without the appeal to broadcasters of the AFL or the NRL and the dollars that go with it, he is looking for other ways to make up financial ground.

One way is offering to sell off parts of the game to investors through private equity.

“You put all the commercial rights that are attributable to rugby in Australia,” he explains, “which could be ticketing revenue, sponsorship revenue, broadcasting revenue, into a corporate entity then you sell a percentage of that off.

It’s a controversial strategy but Buckley regards it as one that can provide a leg up during an important period for sporting organisations coming out of COVID-19.

The body overseeing the A-League and W-League — the Australian Professional Leagues — recently sold a small share to Channel Ten’s owners ViacomCBS as part of its new deal with Ten and affiliated streaming service Paramount+.

“I think if football can get some private equity or some really big investment to go back into these leagues, and back into these clubs, then you can take it to that next level,” she says.

“If the A-League or the W-League had the same funding as the NRL or the AFL, I think football in this country definitely would have taken off.”

Looking ahead

Dr Fujak believes the code wars matter because it’s a question of survival.

“What we might see is increasingly one code dominate at the expense of the rest,” he says.

“We might come to a point where in fact one code reaches a financial strength to be able to really snuff out another code.”

Rugby Australia reported a $27 million loss last year, citing costs and reduced revenue associated with COVID-19. But chairman McLennan feels “very good” about the future.

“I’d like to think on the whole, our players are well behaved, and it’s a contest every time they go out on the field.

“That we’re a sport that has a rich history. And we’re a really important cog in the wheel of global rugby.”

While Buckley believes association football will eventually thrive, even as it struggles to convert participation into commercial success.

“Sport is that wonderful platform that you can engage with government, you can engage with business, you can engage with community and football can deliver that the best.”

On the front line

While some in sport may feel feel like the contest between the codes is life and death, on the geographical front line of the code wars — where the rugby league and union-supporting part of New South Wales meets the Victorian influence from down south — opinions are more mellow.

Two people in Canberra Raiders merchandise smile at the camera
These cross-code fans love living in Wagga Wagga.(

ABC News: Jack Snape

)

“If you live in Victoria, no one wants to know about NRL,” one female fan volunteered outside an NRL match between Canberra and Newcastle in the town of Wagga Wagga  in May.

Her and her husband were wearing Raiders green that day, but it’s clear their wardrobe is full.

“If you’re in Sydney no one wants to know about AFL. So Wagga’s sort of the best of both worlds really. And then you’ve got that bit of soccer in between … what more can you ask for?”

A man in a carpark smiles at the camera with his arms folded
This football fan in Wagga believes all codes can co-exist.(

ABC News: Jack Snape

)

“I think we can coexist basically,” another added.

“This ‘us versus them’ and this whole sort of debate and ‘two sides’ sort of stuff … I think it’s a whole crock of you know what.”

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